Will the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election Be a Realigning Election?

MPSABlog_Smith_RealigningElectionIn his classic book Dynamics of the Party System, James L. Sundquist developed a theory of how party alignments change around new issues. As a winner-take-all system, (also called “first past the post” or FPTP), the U.S. is hard-wired to have only two dominant parties at a time. However, one party can disappear, as did the Whigs when slavery realigned the party system before the Civil War. Alternately, labels and some supporters of the existing parties can remain, but along a new line of separation on a key issue, which Sundquist calls cleavage. For example, the Civil Rights Movement accelerated a shift in the party alignment, with African-Americans and white liberals lining up solidly behind the Democrats instead of being split as before, and white Southerners defecting to the Republican Party.

Sundquist sets forth five criteria for realignment:

  1. Breadth and Depth of the Underlying Grievance
    Trump’s signature issue is immigration, Sanders’ is breaking up big banks. Sanders hits a nerve: the 2009 bank bailout bill passed Congress easily and was supported by both major-party Presidential nominees  despite being massively unpopular with the American people.

    On the other side, Trump’s base is older, working class whites with a high-school education or less. These voters took a terrible beating in the Great Recession. Trump’s appeal seems to pin blame on government officials, other business leaders besides himself, and, most notably, immigrants for colluding to deny American citizens better opportunities.

  2. Capacity to Provoke Resistance
    Here, the case for either Sanders or Trump being agents of realignment is less clear. As Sundquist notes, “The strength and determination of the resistance depend directly, however, not on the grievance but on the remedy proposed.” Will voters warm en masse to Sanders’ democratic-socialist policies including a tax on financial transactions to pay for his proposals? On the other hand, outside the hot-button issue of immigration, Trump’s policy positions are non-ideological and hard to nail down.
  3. Leadership
    Sundquist writes that existing party leaders can head off realignment if they “have the skill and motivation to handle the issue in a way that will check the growth of the polar blocs, and if the issue is the kind that allows such handling…

    Sanders’ opponent Hillary Clinton is working furiously to brand herself as a progressive. If Clinton is the nominee, one of the challenges she and her supporters face is how to incorporate Sanders’ base and their ideas into the party. One such overture is her proposal to more aggressively-enforce the Dodd-Frank law as an alternative to breaking up banks.

    Republicans appear to be in more disarray. With a handful of exceptions, most Republican leaders have no intention of helping Trump if he wins the nomination. The conservative standard-bearing National Review magazine dedicated an entire issue to denouncing Trump.

    Trump’s positions on immigration and Islam are more extreme, but not on the opposite side of most Republicans. Yet Trump also supports bank and auto-industry bailouts, a massively expensive public-works project building a wall along the border between the United States and Mexico (nearly 2000 miles), national health insurance, and a host of other expensive government programs and interventions in the market that could hardly be called conservative. Meanwhile, he ignores other conservative hot-button issues like abortion rights.

    In short, so far the Republican Party has not been successful at co-opting Trump’s issues and his supporters.

  4. Division of the Polar Forces Between Parties
    Democrats are decidedly more pro-immigrant than Republicans. However, there is a minority in each party that disagrees—most notably, 31 percent of Republicans believe immigrants make society better, while, on another dimension, 34 percent of Democrats believe immigrants make the economy worse. There is certainly fodder for a partisan realignment.

    Sanders’ issue with the banks definitely hits a sore nerve. Just 26 percent of Americans express confidence in banks — a huge drop from previous decades and reflective of a general distrust of other institutions. Is this strong enough to drive voter behavior? One problem: as noted above, Americans may split over solutions — Republicans are much more likely to identify government regulations as part of problem, yet Sanders’ proposed solutions involve additional regulations and enforcement. Thus the issue tends to break along existing party lines rather than reshape them.

  5. Strength of Existing Party Attachments
    If Trump and Sanders share one thing, it is their outcry against “the establishment.” Yet, the candidates are hardly mirror images of one another. As Nate Silver points out, Sanders is largely working to push the Democratic Party to the left along the existing left-right spectrum, whereas Trump is “all over the place” on other issues besides immigration. In short, Trump’s supporters are more likely to scramble the existing ideological divide.

In conclusion, here are some key questions for thought:

  • If Hillary Clinton is nominated, how effective will she be at incorporating Bernie Sanders’ issues and supporters into the party?
  • If the Democratic Party moves to the left, either by nominating Bernie Sanders or by co-opting some of his issues, will the “only centrists can win” conventional wisdom prove to be a debunked historical artifact, or the simple-math reality of every election?
  • Will the U.S. party system realign along the issue of immigration?
  • Is Donald Trump’s support idiosyncratic, or is it revealing a deep political cleavage that cuts across existing party lines?
  • If the party system does realign, will pro-immigration Republicans feel comfortable defecting to the Democratic Party, particularly given the push by Sanders supporters to move left on other issues?
  • While third parties are a hard sell in any FPTP system, might the U.S. develop a smaller but potentially tie-breaking third party like the British Liberal Democrats, who also exist under winner-take-all rules? Which party would lose more supporters to the new party? Would the new system mobilize those currently not voting or voting infrequently?
  • Will this year’s raucous caucuses (and primaries) lead to a re-thinking of the direct primary/caucus system, in which a small minority of passionate participants choose party nominees that may be out of step with most voters?

It may be too soon to predict a political realignment, but at the very least, the USA’s current two-party system is certainly experiencing disruptive shocks this year.

About the author: Michael A. Smith is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University where he teaches classes on state and local politics, campaigns and elections, political philosophy, legislative politics, and nonprofit management. Smith has contributed to multiple media outlets and is also a blogger for the 2016 MPSA conference in Chicago. Follow Smith on Twitter.

Primaries and Caucuses 2016: Experiencing the Energy and Demystifying the Math

Smith_Iowa_Shaw
INDIANOLA, IA – FEBRUARY 1, 2016: Indianola mayor Kelly Shaw (second from right) and Smith’s Emporia State University students at the Iowa caucus. (Photo courtesy: Michael A. Smith)

The 2016 Primary/Caucus season started this week in snowy Iowa, and my students and I were there to see it. Eight Emporia State students and one alumnus joined me for the trip.  Dr. Kelly Shaw, mayor of Indianola and a political scientist at Iowa State University, hosted us for a night observing both Democratic and GOP caucuses on the campus of Simpson College. One group of my students watched the Democrats vote, while another group observed the Republicans.

Students were struck by the differences between the voting procedures. The Republican process opened with a prayer, then featured speeches by advocates for the different candidates. Finally, caucus-goers voted for their preferred candidates on a paper ballot, the votes were tallied, results were announced, and that was that. Marco Rubio was the big winner in Warren County, despite the fact that no one spoke on his behalf beforehand. Afterwards, party stalwarts stayed to choose various, local party officials for the coming year.  We would later learn that Rubio and Ted Cruz each had a good night in Iowa.

The Democrats were more raucous. While the Republicans were seated, the Democrats had chairs only for those with disabilities. Others stood, re-grouping themselves based upon which candidate they were supporting. Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats re-allocated supporters based on a threshold. The candidate (Martin O’Malley) with too few supporters was eliminated and his supporters invited to join either the Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton crowd, with supporters of each cheering and chanting for their side. Undecided caucus-goers were also asked to choose a side between the two candidates who reached the viability threshold. In the end, the precinct we observed had 83 Sanders supporters and 61 for Clinton. Due to rounding, each got two delegates. As with their GOP counterparts downstairs, most caucus-goers left once this was announced, with only the hard-core remaining to vote on local party officials and other matters afterward. The students later elected to go to a Bernie Sanders rally where his supporters cheered, booed, anxiously watched returns, and waited for their candidate to speak.  In the end, it was the closest presidential caucus in Iowa history.

Delegate Selection

The differences in delegate selection between the two parties have real consequences.  Recalling Arrow’s Theorem—roughly summarized as proving that no system of counting votes always assures a fair outcome—the different vote-counting mechanisms can affect who becomes President of the United States. For example, Barack Obama won enough delegates to be the Democratic nominee in 2008 despite Hillary Clinton’s slim edge in the popular vote.  This year, the parties (particularly the Republicans) have changed the process yet again.

On the Democratic side, the process is detailed here. In sum, each state is awarded delegates based upon a formula using the following factors:

  • The votes that the Democratic presidential nominee received in 2004, 2008, and 2012.
  • The state’s electoral votes.
  • Bonus votes for states that hold their primaries or caucuses later in the cycle.
  • Additional bonus votes if neighboring states also hold their primaries or caucuses later.

The Democrats require all states to use the proportional-representation-with-threshold system that my students observed in Iowa. Democrats also have “superdelegates,” who are Democratic elected officials and other DNC members in the states.

The Republican system has changed significantly since 2008. While the GOP has stopped short of directly requiring the use of proportional representation to assign delegates, they have greatly restricted the use of winner-take-all allocation, compared to previous elections. Now, only late-voting (after March 15) states are allowed to use winner-take-all, that is, to allocate all of the state’s delegates to a state’s one highest vote-getter in the primaries. When it comes to allocating the delegates among the states, the GOP process is detailed here. In short, the GOP formula for assigning delegates includes the following:

  • 10 at-large delegates per state, and 6 each for American Samoa, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
  • Additional delegates based upon how many U.S. House districts are in a state.
  • “Bonus delegates” for GOP elected officials: Governor, U.S. Senate, U.S. House, and majority control in one or both chambers of the state legislature.
  • A penalty for holding primaries or caucuses earlier than called for in the official RNC rules.
  • Instead of “superdelegates,” RNC rules call for their members in the states, including certain elected officials, to be included in a state’s regular delegation to the party convention.

Comparing Party Processes

Political scientists are right in our wheelhouse when it comes to studying how these formulas work. Even a superficial glance at the differences above can be telling. For example, the Republicans penalize states for “jumping” the calendar, while the Democrats instead reward the states which vote later. The end result is that no state has deviated from the calendar in either party. For the Republicans, then, the sanctions do not apply to any state this year. For the Democrats, on the other hand, the extra delegates given for holding primaries or caucuses later may give late-voting states extra sway in choosing the nominee, if the race is not wrapped up by early March. In other words, the difference between the two parties’ rules means that the later-voting states could hold more sway in the Democratic race than in the GOP one.

The “nuts and bolts” of voting are often far more important in determining results than the latest insta-poll or a candidate’s embarrassing gaffe, but fundamentals are often overlooked in superficial media coverage. Political scientists can help those who are ready to go beyond the sensational and see what will really decide the next U.S. President. Is all of this too technical to hold our interest? Not according to my students. One even said, “It was probably one of the best nights of my life.”

About the author:  Michael A. Smith is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University where he teaches classes on state and local politics, campaigns and elections, political philosophy, legislative politics, and nonprofit management. Smith has contributed to multiple media outlets and is also a blogger for the 2016 MPSA conference in Chicago.  Follow Smith on Twitter.

Gender and Emotions on the Campaign Trail

Hillary Clinton Testifies At Senate Confirmation Hearing
WASHINGTON – JANUARY 13, 2009: U.S. Secretary of State Nominee and incumbent U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) testifies during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

During a recent interview, when Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody asked Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump whether he cries, Trump replied that he is “not a big crier.” He said he likes “to get things done,” but is “not someone who goes around crying a lot.” His statement generated plenty of media coverage, mostly focusing on the underlying message of the statement—that criers cannot be doers, and by extension, might be unfit for the most powerful office of the country.

At another interview, talk show host Amanda de Cadenet asked Hillary Clinton how she processes all the emotion coming at her. “As a woman, in a high public position seeking the presidency as I am, you have to be aware of how people will judge you for being “emotional,” and so it’s a really delicate balancing act,” Clinton said. Her statement was particularly revealing, considering that in the past she has been criticized for her failure to show compassion and connect with voters at an emotional level.

The two contrary positions toward emotions from candidates who are both running for the highest office in the country can be attributed in part to gender dynamics in politics.

Voters tend to associate women with expressive qualities such as compassion, warmth, gentleness, and kindness, while men are associated with agentic qualities such as competitiveness, self-confidence, aggressive, ambition, independence, strength, and toughness.

As a result of these trait stereotypes, women are expected to be more competent in dealing with social issues such as education, welfare, and environment, which involve looking after the most vulnerable sections of society, while men are expected to be better at handling issues such as foreign policy, defense, and the economy, which require them to make decisions about the overall safety and security of the country and deal with threat. Since the office of the president is associated with “male” issues such as foreign policy, defense and the economy, it is often considered “masculine.”

In terms of emotions, considering that women have traditionally played the roles of nurturer and caregiver, they are commonly associated with emotions such as happiness, embarrassment, surprise, sadness, disgust, warmth, fear, anxiety, and shame. Men, on the other hand, are associated while anger, contempt, and pride.

Given the link between candidate gender and office, Clinton’s bid for the presidency puts her in direct odds with the stereotypes literature. If she portrays herself as a tough, no-nonsense leader, she could be upending the stereotypes associated with women candidates and creating dissonance in the minds of voters. On the other hand, portraying herself as too emotional would raise doubts about her appropriateness for the office of the president. She seems to be aware of the delicate balance between femininity and toughness that she needs to display in order to be successful. In her 2008 presidential bid, she largely shunned her feminine, emotional side, but in the 2016 campaign, she has tried to portray herself as a loving grandmother as well as a tough leader committed to issues of national security as well as reproductive rights. This strategy might help her successfully navigate the gendered aspect of the presidency.

About the Author:  Newly Paul is Assistant Professor of Communication at Appalachian State University. Her research focuses on political advertising, political communication, and race and gender in politics. Her website is newlypaul.weebly.com.